June 24, 2010

family food

Food plays an important role in my large, Italian family.   Food is community.  Love and care are expressed through food.  Memories are created around traditional dishes.  Many of our interactions – and any major event – revolve around food.  Holidays, graduations, weddings – none feels complete without a gathering of family around a meal – or two. 

Some of my most treasured times are those I spend with my mother and sisters in the kitchen.   At our annual extended-family vacation, we spend almost as much time in the kitchen as we do on the beach.  The trip is consistently the source of several new recipes and the inevitable extra poundage that goes with a week of family cooking.

It’s probably not surprising that a 4-day visit from my parents and youngest sister was packed with as many trips to the grocery store and many more hours in the kitchen.  When they left early Sunday morning, we were all disappointed that we hadn’t had time for everything we wanted to cook together.  Rooftop grilling and goat cheese tortelli with chard, mushrooms, and honey were among those that unfortunately did not make the cut.    

After picking our guests up from the airport at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, sleeping late, and spending the afternoon at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, we treated ourselves to dinner out: Spanish tapas and sangria.
The next day we had a late afternoon snack of tortilla chips with 2 different types of homemade guacamole and were too full for dinner.

The collective craving for something healthy later on in the evening (and our latest produce delivery) provided the opportunity for me to make a raw kale salad for the first time.

For lunch on Friday, we took a drive out to Great Falls Park and had a picnic of panzanella, Italian and Spanish cheeses, salami, a country wheat baguette, sweet potato chips, and fresh fruit.

Friday night we made French gnocchi.
Saturday morning, we made Belgian waffles.

Saturday night we baked bread…
…and made a spring risotto with peas, asparagus, lemon, and basil.
Be on the lookout for recipes related to the dishes mentioned in this post!
June 10, 2010

sugared berries

For the second weekend in a row, I had the opportunity to work on a wedding cake, albeit in a much smaller capacity this time.  My task was to prepare blueberries and blackberries for the top of the cake by brushing them with a very thin coating of egg white and covering them with sugar.  It was a perfectly lovely way to spend a Saturday morning.


The finished result (baked and decorated by the bride’s sister) was inspirational.  The simplicity and rustic beauty of fresh berries were perfect for this springtime wedding.

I am looking forward to giving it a try myself.


Read more about the weekend here.

June 1, 2010

New Heights

This past weekend, we had the privilege of hosting a party celebrating the recent marriage of two of our dearest friends.  I wanted to make them a wedding cake, and I thought it would be a fun project to attempt an all-out, three-tiered confection.  (We were only expecting 15 to 20 people, so I thought any more than three tiers would be a bit much.)  It would be my first cake of this magnitude.  I was looking forward to researching the process and shopping for all the new tools I would need.  The latter task was made much easier (and considerably more economical) when I discovered that my favorite store has finally come into the 21st century.  The closest Hobby Lobby to D.C. is over 2 hours away in Pennsylvania, so I was thrilled to discover the online store.

Guided in part by Martha Stewart’s Wedding Cakes and various websites, I gathered my supplies.  After consulting briefly with the newlyweds, I decided on a white cake flavored with almond.  Our out-of-town guests a couple of weeks ago were happy to participate as taste testers, and we unanimously agreed on an adapted Cook’s Illustrated recipe.  

The baking began Friday night, after some calculating and a trip to the grocery store.  To fill the each of the 10-, 8-, and 6-inch pans twice, I would need to triple the original recipe.  Unfortunately the 6-quart bowl on my stand mixer isn’t quite a big enough to hold a triple batch, so I combined double and single batches. 

The first round of cakes took what seemed like forever to rise and set properly in the oven.  They finally seemed to be done after 33 minutes, but their centers sank as they cooled.  I was off to a disappointing start, but I proceeded in much the same way with the second round of cakes.  Thirty minutes later they came out of the oven perfectly golden with beautifully rounded tops.  The only explanation I have for the first round is that maybe the oven hadn’t quite reached 350 degrees when I put them in.  The oven’s digital display had indicated that it had reached the proper temperature, and I was either too lazy or too forgetful to check the manual oven thermometer.  Oh well.  All of the layers would have to be leveled anyway.


After the cakes were completely cool, I wrapped them in plastic and put them in the refrigerator to chill overnight.  This would make them easier to handle when it came time to level, split, and frost.

Saturday morning I remembered that I hadn’t made a final decision on a frosting recipe because  I wasn’t sure what type of frosting would be the easiest to work with and yield the smoothest results.  I had recently realized that my old standby buttercream recipe was not the only buttercream out there.  The frosting recipes I had used on my test cake and on the strawberry cupcakes both contained a significantly higher butter to powdered sugar ratio, the highest being 1:3.5, versus a butter-sugar ratio of  1:9 in my usual recipe.  For my birthday cake last August, I had made an Italian meringue buttercream, which had been easy to spread but by no means the best-tasting frosting ever.   I consulted with several websites on cake decorating and a few blogs, one of which highly recommended a Swiss meringue buttercream.  The recipe was similar to the Italian meringue, but the blogger gave it such glowing praise that I decided to give it a try.  I whipped up a very small batch and tried it on a small cake that I had baked the night before to use up the extra batter.  Brian and I both agreed:  the icing was okay but nothing to write home about. 


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Actually, I take that back.

It was worth writing home about but not because it was good.  I had convinced myself that I was happy with the Italian meringue buttercream on my birthday cake because it was my birthday and I wanted to love my cake.  I did overall, just not the frosting.  With this latest meringue buttercream experience, I can really admit that I didn’t like it.  (The instances in which I can bring myself to say something negative about anything Italian are few an far between.)    If you’re of the persuasion that whipped frostings are the best, you may disagree with me.  However, in my opinion, a meringue buttercream is not worth the calories.  The mouth-feel is like a glob of butter mixed with mayonnaise, and it’s barely sweet enough to call itself a dessert.  The only appealing characteristic of this particular Swiss meringue buttercream was its strong vanilla flavor. 

I was back to my original options, but I had no idea whether I preferred my original buttercream recipe or one of the new ones I had tried in the past month.  Then I came across a “Snow White Buttercream Icing” on Wilton’s icing comparison chart.  I was curious because of the claims that the icing is “ideal for wedding cakes” and that “air-dried flowers have translucent look.”  The second attribute in particular made me think of wedding cakes I had seen in the past, the lovely translucence of the decorations, and the way the flowers dried hard on the outside, but were still soft and creamy on the inside.  That was exactly what I wanted for this cake.  I was also intrigued when I saw that the recipe called for meringue powder, which I had never used but  had bought expressly for this project with the intention of making royal icing for decorating.  I was convinced by Wilton’s description that the frosting would not turn out like the meringue buttercreams (which call for fresh egg whites), despite the meringue powder (whose main ingredient is powdered, pasteurized eggs whites).

I began by making a small test batch.  I sacrificed the “snow white” color of the frosting (and probably also the translucence) in favor of using real butter (rather than shortening – yuck), but I did concede to using corn syrup and clear (imitation) vanilla.  My adapted recipe, which turned out just as I had hoped, is as follows.

Wedding Cake Icing
printable recipe

2/3 cup + 3 tablespoons water, divided
1/4 cup Meringue Powder
12 cups sifted confectioners' sugar, (about 3 lbs.) divided
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter (2 1/2 sticks)
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
scant 3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon almond extract (or up to 1 teaspoon, to taste)
3/4 teaspoon clear vanilla extract (or pure vanilla extract)

Yield: About 7 cups of icing.

In a large bowl, combine water and meringue powder; whip with electric mixer at high speed until peaks form. Add 4 cups sugar, one at a time, while beating at a low speed. Add remaining 8 cups sugar, 1 tablespoon water, butter, and corn syrup in 3 additions, blending well (on low speed) after each. Add salt and extracts. Beat at low speed until smooth. If necessary for desired consistency, add remaining 2 tablespoons water. Keep bowl covered with a damp cloth until ready to use. For best results, keep icing bowl in refrigerator when not in use. Refrigerated in an airtight container, icing can be stored 2 weeks. Rewhip before using.

For thin (spreading) consistency icing, add up to 3 more tablespoons each of water and corn syrup.

I doubled the recipe, and armed with 15 cups of my new favorite frosting, I went to work building the cake.  Using a long serrated knife, I leveled the 6 chilled cake layers and then split each one in two, for a total of three 4-layer tiers. 

A dollop of buttercream secured the first layer to a 10-inch round of cardboard, and working from the bottom up,  I brushed each layer with simple syrup (to keep the cake moist) and covered it with frosting before stacking the next layer and repeating.  It went a little something like this:


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When each of the four 10-inch layers had been stacked, I covered the whole thing with a thin “crumb coat” and put it in the refrigerator to chill.


Then came the 8-inch tier.


Then the 6-inch.


Next came the tricky part: covering each tier with the final coat of buttercream and getting it perfectly smooth.  My bench scraper and a new 13-inch spatula and turntable made the job considerably less difficult but by no means easy.

I started by thinning the icing with about a tablespoon and a half each of water and corn syrup.  In retrospect, I think I made it a little too thin, because as I worked and it warmed to room temperature (it had been in the fridge while I waited for the crumb coats on the cakes to chill), it tended to droop down the sides of the cake a little too readily.  However, for consistency’s sake from tier to tier, I went on working with the icing as it was.


Brian assisted by turning the stand as I held the bench scraper, in order to avoid the lumps created every time I stopped to adjust my grip of the turntable (see left picture).


Another helpful technique involved dipping the bench scraper or spatula in warm water and drying it off just before smoothing the icing.  I discovered by the end that leaving a small amount of moisture on the tool also helped to get the icing smoother.


After all three tiers were frosted and chilled, I began the most unfamiliar part of the process: stacking the tiers.  With Brian’s help, I measured the height of each of the bottom two tiers using a bamboo skewer.  Then we cut plastic dowels to the proper length – five for the bottom tier and four for the middle tier – and inserted them into the cake.   We attached the bottom tier to a foil-covered base using buttercream and stacked the middle and top tiers, each supported by dowels and a thin cardboard base. 


Next time I’ll cut the dowels slightly shorter so that each tier rests flush with the one below it. 

In order to secure the tiers, we used a bamboo skewer, driving it from the top, down to the base board.  (A slightly thicker wooden dowel would have been more secure, but we didn’t have one long enough, and we would only be transporting the cake up two floors to the rooftop deck.)


It was finally time to decorate the cake!  First I had to decide on a design, however.  I knew that the the bride’s favorite color was green, and I had spent the last month flipping through Martha Stewart’s Wedding Cakes, marking pages with cake designs that I thought I might be able to pull off.   I came to a decision after browsing online and sketching several ideas.   The final design was inspired in part by the plates we had bought for serving the cake.


I made another small batch of buttercream (about 2 cups), just to be sure I would have enough, and combined it with the 2-3 cups leftover from icing the cake.  The frosting needed to be thickened for decorating, so I added about a cup of powdered sugar.


Large blue beads disguised the gaps between the tiers.


The monogram started out a little wobbly, but I was able to fix it later, at the same time tying it in texturally with the rest of the design.


The finished cake went into the refrigerator overnight.  (It actually looked smoother in person than it does in the pictures.)  I’m pretty sure I opened the door about ten times before going to bed, just to make sure the cake was still there. 

Sunday was sunny with temperatures in the upper 80s.  The perfect day for a rooftop party.  We were a bit concerned that the cake would not hold up in the heat, so we waited until about 7:30 to bring it out.  By then the temperature had dropped to about 80, and we were able to find a shady spot.  When we cut the cake a little after 8:30, it was still in excellent condition. 


The cake was a big hit with the newlyweds and guests alike;   we are thrilled to have been able to throw a party for our friends;  and I am able to say that I’ve successfully completed my first tiered cake!

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